Friday, June 29, 2012

John Roberts the West Coast Offense

Okay, first blog post so here we go…

So in case you have been on the moon for the past few days, or a regular person who doesn’t obsess about politics all day long you probably heard that in a five to four vote (the four “liberal” justices plus “conservative” John Roberts vs the four “conservative” justices) voted to uphold the constitutionality of the 2010 Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare or ACA or Health Reform or a bunch of other names.  You know that healthcare bill.  One emerging point that conservatives have been boasting about and liberals fearing is the idea that while Obama may have won a big victory in the short term, he’s lost in the long term mainly because John Roberts “gutted” the idea that the Congress can use the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to regulate all sorts of economic activity on a nationwide basis.  The New Republic’s resident wonk Jonathan Cohn summed this argument up as:
Although Chief Justice John Roberts joined his liberal colleagues in upholding the law, he joined his conservative colleagues in rejecting a key argument on the law’s behalf. In particular, he said that the mandate was not a legitimate way for the government to regulate interstate commerce.
Now he might be right.  I mean who really knows what will happen in the next 20 years?  But I think he’s wrong and most importantly I think that people like him or George Will, who will be boasting about this in his columns for the next 200 years, are thinking about SCOTUS and politics in general in the wrong way.  And in order to show you how I am going to have to talk about the San Francisco 49ers and the West Coast offense.  Please bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.

In Chuck Klosterman’s great book Eating the Dinosaur he dedicates a whole chapter to why he loves football and a whole section to the crazy ostracized geniuses who dramatically change the sport by coming up with ideas their contemporaries think are stupid and/or insane.  The first one is:
Bill Walsh the architect of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty, who built the West Coast offense on an interesting combination of mathematics and psychology:  He realized that any time a team rushed for four yards on the ground, the play was viewed as a success.  However, any time a team completed a pass that gained four yards, the defense assumed they had made a successful stop.  Walsh understood the two situations were identical.
Got that?  Basically it means that in football you generally win by scoring the most points and you generally score points by scoring touchdowns (or field goals to a lesser degree) and you generally score touchdowns (or field goals) by advancing the ball down the field.  How that is done is less important that doing it in the first place.  The same rule applies to politics, either in a city council meeting or in SCOTUS.  If Roberts wanted to damage liberal views of Constitutional law and Obama’s domestic policy he could have delivered a crushing body blow by voting to make ACA unconstitutional.  He didn’t do that, he voted to make it constitutional.  Can a historic SCOTUS decision have broad implications that advance conservative views on the Constitution, the role of the Federal Government and domestic policy?  Of course it can.  However, what is much more important is that the law was upheld and everyone will be acting accordingly starting tomorrow.  What happened was the political equivalent of a touchdown (actually more like 50 touchdowns, at least for me).  Perhaps you can win a football game by letting Jerry Rice catch a bunch of short passes and score a bunch of touchdowns and lull the 49ers into a false sense of security.  I suppose that could be done, and I guess it might even have happened in the past.  But the far more important thing in football is points just as the far more important thing in politics is winning practical victories that enact your agenda, whether that’s repaving more streets or solving our huge healthcare problems.  No matter what legal argument people make about the danger of Robert’s decision what is more important is that a life-long conservative Republican appointed by George W. Bush voted for a decidedly liberal interpretation of what the Federal Government can and can’t do on a practical level.  Not everything is elaborate mind games or intricate strategy.  When you score 34 points in the first quarter and your opponent scores none you are in a good spot, regardless what plans they may have in store for you.


  1. I think this is a good way to look at the political implications. One of the reasons most of the neo-political analysis that has been spewing forth on this issue is related to the fact that much of it is coming from legal analysts and reporters, so they're looking at it much more through the prism of potential legal implications over political and policy.

    I think one of the more interesting legal implications will be whether Roberts continues to looks for ways to construe laws as legal & constitutional as opposed to looking for reasons to strike them down (which is the current approach to guys like Alito & Thomas). Which is more likely: Roberts favors judicial modesty or Roberts favors gutting the Commerce Clause?

    Here's my other thought on the "victory" analysis, and I'm curious as to your thoughts: is anyone better at taking a win and finding ways to make it a loss than Democrats and/or liberals? Rather than take a victory lap and using the good news and free media to trumpet how good the ACA is going to be for Americans, they're letting others dictate the narrative and spending too much time worrying about every bad thing that could happen.

    1. Thanks for the comment Josh! As for "is anyone better at taking a win and finding ways to make it a loss than Democrats and/or liberals?" No probably not. However, I would say that any day spent talking about stuff other than the economy is a good day for the Obama campaign.